Saturday, December 3, 2011

Site Visit to Kongo West

Now I must elaborate on my busy three days in Kongo West, filled with greetings and meetings and drinking pito.
Day 1 (Saturday, November 5)
Christopher brought me a breakfast of fried eggs and a box of Don Simon juice to start off my day.  I had some sweet bread and instant coffee, product of India, to go along with that.  I'm not a big fan of the tea bread or sweet bread here; its very white and has no nutritional value...but sometimes I eat it anyways.  I also find it interesting that they really don't produce coffee here.  I think there are areas that grow the coffee beans, but then they export it to be processed.  All the coffee I have had here has been Nescafe, or some other brand of instant coffee.  In the morning you just need some coffee or tea, so you grab whatever you can.  Adding some evaporated milk to the coffee makes it tastier, and it gives me probably one of my only sources of calcium and vitamins A and D, since I haven't had much access to dairy here.
We started the day of greetings by walking across the street to Kongo East to meet their assemblywoman, Honorable Elizabeth.  Christopher is the assemblyman for Kongo West; there is only one chief for all of
Kongo, however.  (Kongo East and West are divided by the highway, called Bawku Road, which leads to Bolga to the west, and eventually takes you to Burkina Faso to the east.)
After greeting her, we walked back across the road and down the street to drink some pito brewed y Christopher's aunt.  Pito is the common drink found in the north (in the south, they make a very alcoholic drink called akpateshia).  It is made form guinea corn, a small, reddish grain.  I was described the pito brewing process, and it was emphasized that it is a purely organic process.  They only use the guinea corn, water and yeast.  The guinea corn grain that is leftover after the soak it in water and drain the juice is used as feed from their animals.  The residual yeast that collects at the bottom of the barrels, and the bottom of the calabash you drink from, is used to make bread or put in the next batch of pito.  The alcohol content of pito is very low, much less than beer, but it does vary from brewer to brewer because there is no standardized process.
During my first pito drinking experience, I met a bunch of Christopher's close friends- Marcus, Mr. Sam, Mr. Roja, Mr. Michael and Mr. John.  Marcus is only a few years older than me, but the rest are in their 40s and 50s.  (I have found it very hard to tell the age of Ghanaians- they tend to look a lot younger than the age they say they are, but sometimes I think that they don't always know their age or they round up.)  This group of men is really entertaining- they are always giving each other a hard time and laughing, but they also talk of serious issues too.  I didn't understand much of what they were saying, but they still made me laugh.  They all speak at least some English, so I was able to have small conversations with them.
After a few hours of pito and jokes, we walked about 30 minutes to Pitanga.  (Kongo West is split into five sections: Pitanga, Yakin, Go-nsablong, Go-nseong and Nagbonk.)  In the local language, "tanga"= rock, and "pi"= hard to pick up.  So this area of Kongo has lots of big rocks, but I was not able to see many of them where we were; Chris is going to show me more when I get back in December.
Since this was my first meeting, I was unsure of protocol of greetings.  Christopher told me to greet the women and he would greet the men.  (I think I could not greet the men because I was not yet introduced to them.)  To greet in Kongo, you say "Tuma, Tuma" and the response is "Naa" or "Naabaa."  That was about 75% of what I said in Nab't the whole weekend.  The other 25% was "La ayela?"/"La an-soma" (How are you?/ I am fine) and telling a few men that I am married (Mam tari sira). Most of the greetings that I learned in Kongo are different from what I have been taught in my language classes, so it will take some time to break down what I've been learning and use the local words and phrases.
Quite a few people showed up to this first meeting in Pitanga, which made Christopher very happy.  The elder men sat on one bench, and the elder woman sat on another; we sat on a bench facing the elders.  The younger people in the community sat around us on the ground or in scattered chairs.  To start the meeting, the bisnabaa said an opening prayer.  Chris then began his introductory speech in which he described how he applied for and received a volunteer.  There was a master of ceremony who translated for me (read: Christopher would talk for 10 minutes at a time, and I would get a two-sentence translation, haha).  Eventually Christopher asked me to introduce myself.  This caught me a little off-guard since he didn't warn me in advance, so I came up with a little something on the spot.
I told them my American name, and my Nab't name, Kongbon.  (Christopher gave me this name.  It means, "for all of us"- I am here for the whole community of Kongo.  So far I have gotten great reactions to my new name from the community.)  I told them I was very happy to be in there community, to get to know them, and to help them in any way that they want.  I told them that I do not come in with my own preconceived ideas of what they need or what they should do, rather I am there to listen to them and work as a team to help them achieve their goals.  I clarified that I was only there for three days initially, to get a feel for the community and my living situation, and I would return at the end of December to begin my two-year service.  I told them between now and then I would be receiving a lot of training and would bring back that knowledge to the community.
I met both the bisnabaa and the manga zea of Pitanga (the manga zea is the Queen Mother-she deals with problems that the women have in the community, while the bisnaabaa deals with the men.  We were in this meeting for almost two hours.  Christopher did most of the talking, while the M/C translate occasionally for me and said some words of his own, and the bisnabaa and manga zea spoke also.  I answered a few questions from the other members (one was, "Should we start discussing issues now?"  My response was "No, I will be back in December to talk to everyone for longer."  And Christopher added that he would arrange meetings to have while I am gone to start talking about problems and their solutions.)  The manga zea ended the meeting with a closing prayer, I went around thanking everyone for coming, then we walked back toward town.  Christopher was very happy with how I was received, so I think I started off on a good note.
We met up with Cletus and Ran back in town.  Ran is a fellow trainee who is in the next won over, Yakoti, and his counterpart is Cletus, who has been best friends with Christopher since childhood.  I am sure we will all meet up frequently to catch up and discuss our projects.
I quickly ate before heading to the next meeting, another 30 minute walk in a different direction.   My late lunch was: fish (whole, chopped into pieces, bones, skin and all) in rice, noodles and beans, with fried yams.  The second meeting was is a section called Go-nseung.  As we approached the meeting, the women were singing and clapping in a circle, and as I sat down, I was surrounded.  Several of them welcomed me by doing a foot-stomping dance, and there were a lot of high-pitched calls.
There was another opening prayer, Christopher did his intro, I said a few words, and one of the schoolgirls, Belinda, translated for me.  This meeting went differently than earlier; members started to go into the needs of the community (water and electricity), and Belinda further emphasized the need for money so that parents could send their children to school.  She was a very passionate young girl, and I was inspired by her.  She was probably in senior secondary school (high school), and she had the best English of anyone in this section.  Many times she wasn't even translating; she would go off on her own tangents, further expressing the need for water, electricity and money to go to school.  I guess this section thought that I would only be there for three days, and would not be returning, so that's why they dove into the community's needs right away.  Christopher let them carry on, but it was interesting to hear what everyone had to say.
This meeting went way past sunset; very quickly, the moon was our spotlight.  It shone so brightly we didn't even need a flashlight to get home.  Before calling it a night, Christopher and I had a late night snack of fried eggs and Star.
Day 2 (Sunday, November 6)
Breakfast was fried eggs and coffee again.  The day before, I asked Christopher if we were going to church (the community is primarily Catholic), purely out of curiosity, not out of personal want to go.  He said we may go if we had time, since we had more meetings scheduled.  Well, come Sunday morning, after I ate breakfast, we walked to Chris's aunt's pito place again.  We were there until noon.  So, needless to say, we did not go to church.  The same men that I drank pito with the day before were here drinking pito again, instead of going to church...I think we will get along.
So at about 12, we walked about 45 minutes to the next section: Go-nsablong.  (I keep approximating walking times to each section, but it is very difficult to know the actual distance we are walking.  Ghanaians walk VERY SLOWLY, and since Christopher is an assemblyman, we stop and talk to EVERYONE we pass.  And Christopher likes to talk, so each greeting takes a while.  Even Cletus was teasing him about talking to each and every person we walked by.  Eventually we would just started walking away as Christopher was talking with someone so that he would have to run to catch up to us.)  This meeting was quite a bit smaller than the others; it was Kongo market day, so most of the section was selling at the market.  (Kongo market is every three days, and it rotates with Bolga and Pelongo markets.)  It was still good to meet the bisnabaa and manga zea though.  After a while, we took leave and walked back to town to met up with Cletus and Ran for some cold drinks.  I had another late lunch of fish, rice bean and noodles.
For dinner, Christopher and I went to a spot in town, Wadegardens.  We ate a local dish  called Konkogre, which is millet based, with chucks of meat.  I can't really describe the taste, but it is very earthy and grainy.  I did not dislike it, but it an acquired taste.  It did help to wash it down with a beer though.  The Upper East is so dry and dusty, especially in Kongo, that you have to place a coaster over your glass, or your cap back on the bottle, whenever you are not drinking out of it.  At first I wasn't sure why people did this; I though maybe it was to keep bugs out.  But when you sit around for a while, and motorbikes keep passing you, kicking up clouds of dust, you quickly learn to cover your glass or bottle.
Day 3 ( Monday, November 7)
Today we traveled to Bolga for market day.  But of course we could not begin our day, officially, until we stopped for some pito first.  We drank a bit of pito around 8 AM, then went out to Mission Junction to catch a tro, which we caught at about 9 AM, after waiting for half an hour.  Kongo is far enough out from Bolga that tros and taxis do not come by often, and the town itself does not have any cars; most everyone rides a motorbike, or they have bicycles.  People in this area simply do not have the money to buy a car, so you see mostly bikes and motorbikes all over Bolga and the surrounding villages.  It was market day, so it was fairly easy to catch a tro, but on non-market days, it will be near impossible to caught a car out of Kongo to Bolga.  I predict I will be riding my bike a lot, since dealing with tros and taxis is not very pleasant.  I will enjoy the exercise anyways.
So we got into Bolga at about 9:30 and went to the police station first to introduce myself and get contact info.  Then Christopher shoed me the bank, post office and internet cafe.  I even helped him open up an email account because he said he wanted one- he has never had one before and did not know how to use the keyboard.  We got breakfast at a chop bar in the market- fried chicken, jollof rice, cabbage and noodles, yum.  The market is very spread out; I still don't know how big it is.  You can find just about anything here- livestock, bikes, food, handkerchiefs, door locks, obroni clothes, shoes/sandals, get a dress made, catch a tro or taxi or bus, get your hair did....etc.
Rob and Barbara also came to the market with their counterparts, so we all met up, caught up on how our site visits were going, and put together a plan for getting to Tamale the following day.  Chris and I left everyone about noon to catch a tro back to Kongo since we had another meeting planned, but we ended up waiting for 1 1/2 hours for the tro to fill up and leave.  Tros and taxis don't leave a station until they are filled with people and luggage/livestock/food/anything people need to take home.  Sometimes this can happen fairly quckly, but more often than not, you have to wait around for a while.  I've heard many terrible stories of people waiting for HOURS for a tro to fill so that it would leave the station.  Apparently, Metro Mass is more reliable because they either leave once the bus is full, or they leave at the scheduled departure time, whichever occurs first.
Back in Kongo we met with Nagbonk, which we passes through the day before to get to Go-nsablong.  The meeting went about the same as all the others.  For as introverted and shy as I am at home, I've been really amused with how easy it has been for me to greet and talk in front of people I do not know, using the very little Gurune/Nab't I know.  But then again I don't have a choice, and I don't want to start off on the wrnog foot at my site, so I guess under pressure I do pretty well.   I'm sure I've said it before, and I know I'll say it many times again in the future, but greetings are very important in Ghana.  It does not really matter if you are a total stranger, or are well-acqainted, you stop and greet. 
My late lunch consisted of whole fish pieces, fried yams, and SWEET POTATOES with pepe powder- delicious!!  I did not know that they had actual sweet potatoes here, so it was a great surprise.  And they were actually very sweet, even sweeter than at home.  The spicy pepe powder balanced nicely with the sweetness.  I really enjoy the pepe (any kind of spicy pepper that they grind, or put in dishes whole) that they add to just about everything- soups, stews, tomato sauce, on fish, yams, anything.  There are not many spices here, really none at all, but I think I can work with the pepe powder.
Cletus and Ran came by again and we walked to the nearby clinic to introduce ourselves.  We later walked through town to grab some dinner.  I wasn't very hungry since I ate a late lunch, but Cletus and Christopher insisted I eat, so I had a hard boiled egg and orange with Ran.  Our counterparts were craving hot tzet (the staple food in the north, made from maize, millet or guinea corn; in the south, you mostly find fufu or banku).  You eat all these foods the same way- grab a chuck of the mush with your fingers, dip into whatever soup you have with it (sometimes groundnut or fish), and eat.  I still have not tried tzet yet, but I'm curious to taste the food I will be eating a lot of the next two years.
I've already decided that I'll be living on eggs, groundnut paste, oatmeal and whatever fruits and veggies are in season that I can get my hands on.  I'm not a big fan of the overload of starches- rice, yams, cocoyams, plantains, tea bread/sweet bread, with every meal.
I think that my site visit went very well overall.  I did not have expectations of what would or should happen going into it, but I was happy with how it all worked out.  I spent a lot of time with the community, walking around, greeting, sitting, talking, drinking pito; I had very little time to myself, I was constantly busy with people.  I did not get to meet the chief of Kongo, or the District Chief Executive, but these meetings will occur as soon as I return for good.
First thing on my list to buy once at site is a bike.  I knew I would be buying a bike anyways, but I was actually very surprised by how spread out my community is.  I will be very curious to have Christopher take me around the ENTIRE community of Kongo West, so I can get a physical idea of the layout and size of the place.  I will have to dodge a lot of questions about why I am walking or riding a bicycle (everyone, and by everyone, I mean EVERYONE, thinks that I should be riding a motorbike, but its a Peace Corps rule that we cannot do so under any circumstance), but it really doesn't bother me at all.  Even Christopher did not like answering questions from the community as to why I was not riding a motorbike, but I even told him to tell everyone that I enjoy walking and biking, I enjoy the exercise.
Kongo West is a very beautiful place.  I love where I got placed, and I love the Upper East Region.  It is very hot and dry and dusty, and there won't be any rain for a while, but I already see it as my "home" for the next two years.  I cannot wait to get to site and start the real work.

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